Bill: Appropriation Bill 2016 (Estimates Committees)


Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 12:51 ): I am very pleased to have the opportunity to comment upon the estimates process we have been through over the last week, and I will do so for the next eight minutes. I was obviously pleased to participate in those committees on the portfolios I represent as the shadow minister. Education and higher education were on Friday, the multicultural affairs portfolio and science and information economy were yesterday, and the arts portfolio was on Monday. I will comment only briefly on each of them just to put a few things on the record. 

I do commend the casual reader of Hansard to look at the Hansard of these committees. Some of it makes good reading. I have reviewed some of the Hansard myself over the last couple of days to refresh my mind and to clarify what some ministers have said, because when ministers are in the thrust of answering a question sometimes you are preparing for what the next question will be and may miss a word or two, and you do not like to misrepresent anybody. I have refreshed my memory. I do encourage people to have a look. 

There was some interesting material found, some useful information for the people of South Australia in contemplating public policy decisions in these areas. I will just touch briefly on a few of the things that struck me. On Friday, speaking with the Minister for Education in the estimates process, we spent some time talking about the structure of the department. The Department for Education and Child Development, the creation of the current Premier when he came to office in bringing together the child protection arms and the education arms of government, has, as has been found by royal commissioner Nyland, been a disaster. 

It has been a catastrophe for child protection in South Australia and it has failed the effective education of our children as well. The government has now agreed to split it, and given that the very first line in the education pages of the budget identified that the split was to take place following the recommendations of the royal commissioner, the government was going to back down on their firmly held views, up until a couple of months ago, that the departments had to be together. They were going to take up the Liberal policy of splitting the two departments at the urging of the royal commissioner, who came on the heels of just about every stakeholder in this area over the last four years who had been urging the same. 

I spent some time asking the minister why, given that this was going to happen, the budget papers did not reflect this, why it had not actually happened yet. There were few answers, but despite the fact that on the day the Premier accepted the royal commissioner's findings he answered that it would happen quickly, despite the fact that the royal commissioner urged that it happen quickly so that budgetary provision could be made for child protection, the minister identified that they had in fact decided to wait until after the royal commission came down with its findings before splitting that department. 

We asked some further questions about the departmental restructure. In particular, I noted that in August last year the minister—along with her chief executive, the Premier and the Deputy Premier—had identified that the education department was going to be restructured and that the bureaucracy in Flinders Street was going to be slimmed down and resources were going to be returned to the front line, to schools. In particular, 300 staff were identified in that report, in the press release from the education department's CEO, in public statements in The Advertiser, by the Premier, the Deputy Premier and Minister for Education. 

Three hundred staff were going to be moved out of head office to work on the front line to work more closely with schools. What we learnt on Friday is that, despite it taking nearly a year for the record to be corrected, the minister decided that this was the time to correct the 'confused' (I think was the word she used) reporting. The intention had never been for 300 staff to be moved from the education department into schools, that the teaching and learning unit that these 300 officers of the education department comprised would instead be moved out of Flinders Street but still maintained as a central unit. They just would not be in the central building anymore. 

The minister identified that there were three reasons why this would be useful, and I do not disagree with any of them per se. Firstly, if the teaching and learning unit is for those officers to support people in developing best practice in teaching and learning, then having them in Flinders Street created an issue with parking and people did not necessarily like coming into Flinders Street. Secondly, there were not necessarily the right number of conference rooms in the Flinders Street building available to hold their sessions. Thirdly, there was a perception problem: teachers and staff at schools saw Flinders Street as 'the other'—I am paraphrasing here—and 'we want to put it in a position where the teaching and learning unit can actually attend at schools and be based off site somewhere else'. 

Having announced this in the middle of last year, having had it reported that there were going to be teachers returning to classrooms, which was reported positively, I might add, the minister was certainly happy to take the front pages and the accolades of commentators who were supporting this move last year, although she now identifies that they were mistaken. The minister, of course, has had nearly a year to do this but she has not actually achieved the central thrust, which was to move this teaching and learning unit, kept intact with its 300 staff, out of Flinders Street. It beggars belief that this government can act in the way that it accuses others and minor parties of acting on a regular basis: seeking a headline and then letting a story go; not actually doing the work, not actually doing the hard bit. 

Announcing something that people want to happen is the easy bit. Making it happen is what we expect of a government and that is why we pay them the ministerial salaries. That is why you get to sit on that side of the chamber: to actually put into action the things that you say you are going to do, especially on something where you had the bipartisan support of the parliament. It is astonishing to me that they announced this, clearly without having had a plan to do it. So the staff remain in the department and Flinders Street remains 'the other', as might have been described by the minister in different words, and so forth. We discussed the infrastructure projects, we discussed some issues relating to SACE. I thank the ministers for their efforts—those who took the time to answer opposition questions. 

When ministers and their officers are preparing for estimates, if they see figures in the budget jumping around dramatically from one year to the next, there is a reasonable chance that there are going to be questions about this. If the performance indicators, activity indicators and targets are missed by a long shot, we are probably going to ask questions. So maybe, in your preparation for estimates next year, do some preparation on those obvious things so that we do not have to have the rigmarole of taking questions on notice and coming back, maybe in late September, if we are lucky, with the answers. I hope those answers to questions taken on notice will come back in short order. 

I thank the officers for all the work they do in supporting their ministers in this important process, which I think can be quite useful as long as it is treated respectfully by those ministers taking those questions. I look forward to seeing the appropriations passed and public servants paid in the year ahead.